How else can you describe the Wisconsin Badgers' fall from grace in nearly the same fashion this season as last?
Last year, the Badgers, predicted underachievers in the conference, started the 2005-06 campaign 14-2 and sat in first place in the conference. But with key bench players Marcus Landry and Greg Stiemsma lost for the year due to academics, the Badgers went into a free fall from which they never recovered. The epitome of the collapse came in the Badgers last two conference games at East Lansing and Iowa City, where they faltered in the same areas that has boosted them to that surprising start.
Allow me to compare.
Item number one – free throw shooting. At Iowa City, the Badgers shot only nine free throws in a 13-point disaster and were ineffective in driving to lane to draw contact. Sound familiar?
Item number two – Kammron Taylor. In his first season as point guard, Taylor was putting up decent numbers – shooting near 40 percent and averaging 14.2 points per game. Against the Spartans in East Lansing, however, Taylor disappeared from the stat sheet, shooting 4-for-18 and managing only nine points in a game that slipped away from the Badgers. Taylor was so distraught afterwards that he was render speechless after the game and began to break down emotionally. Ring a bell?
Last order of business – Alando Tucker. Tucker went on a tear when Landry and Stiemsma were lost for the season. Scoring at least 17 points in eight out of 10 games heading into Iowa City, Tucker needed a late bucket to score his tenth point with the game well out of reach that capped a 4-for-13 shooting night. Seriously, did I enter the twilight zone?
Two straight years with two road games at the end of the season and two years leaving Wisconsin fans shaking their heads.
While last year was just another scoop of dirt or snow thrown on the grave, this year's late season collapse stings 10 times more.
A week after being crowned the media darlings of 2007, fresh off being ranked number one for the first time in school history and the front runners for the school's first Big Ten title in four years, simply put- it's déjà vu all over again.
Wisconsin made it to the line just six times against the Buckeyes – only once in the second half – and managed only 12 free throw attempt in East Lansing. It's the first time all season Wisconsin's opponents have made more free throws that the Badgers attempted. It's a shocking stat, seeing as the Badgers make more free throws than their opponents attempt with great regularity.
For the second consecutive year, Kammron Taylor disappeared late in the Big Ten season. After scoring two points – yes, the Badgers second leading scoring scored only two in East Lansing (it's still hard to understand) – in their first loss of the week, Taylor's 4-for-12 shooting was tough to watch and missing the front-end of a one-and-one caused Wisconsin fans, young and old, to yell "YOU GOTTA MAKE YOUR FREE THROWS!" at the television to drown out Billy Parker's awkward comments.
And for the second consecutive game, Tucker's decision making raises more than a few eyebrows. After shooting just two shots in the second half in East Lansing (two nasty looking threes), big-game Tucker made only five shots on Sunday and missed all of his three-point attempts – including an awful clunker late in the game.
Now, the Badgers suddenly are no longer the media darlings, as you can hear the questions being raised from Bristol, Connecticut all the way to the Hollywood Hills. The Badgers are overrated! They play with a lack of heart! Their hopes of winning a national title have gone down the tube!
Do you hear how stupid that sounds?
Sure, Wisconsin tanked down the stretch in East Lansing and seemingly blew a chance to clinch the conference in Columbus. But doesn't this late season collapse reminisce some more comforting memories? If not, please indulge me for another minute.
Example one – last season's national champion Florida Gators. Before winning the basketball title last season, the Gators succumbed to a three-game losing skid in the middle of February before making their run to both the SEC and NCAA tournament.
"I was talking to the guys and I said, ‘Florida, I believe, lost three of their last five games last year and won it all,'" Tucker said after the game. "And that's what's pretty much in our heads."
Example two – the Wisconsin hockey team. If Bo Ryan ever needed advice on what to do now, he should walk down the hallway and knock on Mike Eaves' door. Eaves' hockey squad engineered a 14-game unbeaten streak a year ago and was thought to runaway with the WCHA title. Unfortunately, a late-season visit to Mankato crushed Wisconsin, as they allowed 13 goals to the lowly Mavericks that sent the Badgers to rock bottom.
However, those Badgers, with the senior leadership of Adam Burish and Tom Gilbert, did not cry over losing the regular season title, which was a small part of the whole picture. The Badgers rebounded, winning nine of their next 10 and hoisted their sixth national crown.
Are you feeling better Badger fans?
Did Wisconsin struggle this week? Absolutely. Did the Badgers let a perfect chance to win the conference title slip between their fingers? Unfortunately yes. Are the Buckeyes a better team than the Badgers? No they aren't and will be glad to discuss that issue with anyone doesn't agree.
More importantly, is all hope of a number one seed lost in the NCAA tournament? With Florida losing two of three and North Carolina losing to Maryland Sunday night, Wisconsin's losses are just bumps in the road.
Much like the hockey team's disaster in Mankato that made them stronger, this week is a mere blip on the radar in the grand scheme of things. So stop fretting friends. Go outside, finish shoveling and cozy up on the couch with a refreshing malt cup because if all things go according to Bo Ryan's plan, on April 2nd, the last two weeks of February will be a distant memory in the warm southern weather in Atlanta.